I’m getting a little creeped out by all these discussions of panpsychism so near Halloween. I keep imagining my self, that conscious thing I call me, being a composite of billions of conscious particles that form this flawed and striving awareness who suffers through the trials of material existence. I then imagine my death, inadequately defined by current bioethical standards, and the concurrent self-awareness of all those same particles. Surely they are aware of the transition. Surely they are aware that the body is slowly releasing them to a more generalised universal awareness. The bones, of course, are the last to go. These particles have always had the strongest attraction, the most rigid bond. They only take their leave reluctantly, in obedience to fire, perhaps, or millennia of attrition. Only when release is completely unavoidable will they depart and join the infinite chorus of self-less bliss.
This guy once refused to mourn
a little girl who died in a fire,
and we were shocked,
but here we are,
and mourning is forbidden.
We already had distance from death,
sending the dying to hospitals to
negotiate their final arrangements
with eternity in solitude.
And now we wrangle with loss,
alone, muttering final farewells
into wells of wine and beer.
We’ve got this far apart,
and, somehow, drifting
in starless night has made
us realise, against all odds, this
is community. God is in
the limen between me and other.
At one moment, this penumbral
light marks an opening, an escape,
and the next it marks the infinite fading.
I will forever whisper, “I love you,”
as a torturing tic of Tourette’s
until darkness muzzles the
motoring mouthpiece of my mind
and peace kills what remains of desire.
we knew that others would die,
but mercifully each only once,
only one agony to go around,
and that’s how it always is
when the sun stops shining,
light breaks and thighs warmed by
candles thrust toward new beginnings,
new horizons, even as skin drops
from bone, even as hope sizzles
on hot pavement.
But there’s pleasure
yet in the death spiral, the free fall
into summer, or spring, or winter
where we are always surprised
by the break of light, the answer
from the dark, and my boy Dylan
grinning under the shroud of
some, well, maybe it is just a
Maybe this time
a halted dawn is literal,
and we will only limp
to the last break of light.
The bulwark is protection
from him, not for him.
He sidles along
Touching the sides,
looking about furtively,
imagining tunnels and
catapults that could,
in another time and
circumstance, be his aids.
He’s come this far,
but in his old age
he has no choice
but to keep searching
for an opening,
for he’ll have no
ingress without invitation.
And at last, he finds
the wound in the wall,
slides through the
and follows what appears
to be light.
You can find volumes of information
On how to die, but the materials are
All prepared by interns and trainees.
The true masters on the art of dying
Have all lost interest in our struggles
With mortality and how to be shed of it.
Still, we want as much information as
Possible, so we can be prepared when
The time comes. We hang eagerly on
The words of those who nearly died,
Just so maybe we can have a glimpse
Of what it might be like to cross over.
All this anxiety and all this preparation
Despite the fact that no one has ever
Failed on this particular mission.
Sure, some begin the process with
Different levels of equanimity, but
They all seem restful enough in the end.
The funeral was a real shit show. The deceased considered himself Christian, make no mistake about that, but his religious practice was quiet at best. He was sort of a non-practicing Methodist—just enough faith to count when he got to the other side, in case anyone was keeping score, but nothing more. Loud displays of devotion or, well, almost anything, made him uncomfortable. Maintaining decorum was paramount to him.
Can we just say he came from humble roots and wanted to keep his unrefined past buried? That’s why he’d been careful to lead a life of quiet dignity for the most part. When you’re a retired military officer, people give you a bit of respect, anyway, and he maintained a stable marriage and a reasonable display of material comforts for a few decades.
But sometimes aging men want to grab onto what they think they’ve been denied, and he saw the death of his first wife as an opportunity to indulge his long-denied carnal nature. When she died, he announced rather solemnly that he would take a year to grieve and then look for a young companion with “big tits.” And I guess he pretty much proved that you can achieve some of your goals with just a little patience and perseverance.
And so there she was—part trophy, part embarrassment. She was overtly sexual but also overtly evangelical. You might think of Tammy Faye Baker or something. Lots of makeup and tight clothes. You get the picture. And she went to one of those churches where people dance around and emote profusely. And of course no one would deny it was her right to choose the preacher for the funeral.
So you end up with all these retired professors, engineers, lawyers and so on sitting in amazed silence as this preacher says of the deceased, “I tried to think what he would want, and I realized he would want me to preach.” An hour of shouted invocations and praises followed with discomfort settling over the audience like a heavy fog.
So the man who spent a lifetime seeking quiet decorum was sent to the other side with all the subdued dignity of a summer tent revival. Due to separate circumstances, he was also sent to the afterlife with a cigarette between his lips and missing the ring he was wearing when the body was prepared for burial. Apparently his son thought he deserved the ring and that the cigarette was somehow appropriate to the occasion, and maybe he was right. Who am I to say?
The venerable X. J. Kennedy used a poem about “vile rottenflush”
to illustrate bad poetry in his seminal textbook,
Introduction to Poetry.
The poem, he explains, was submitted to the equally venerable
Paris Review, but he does not credit (blame?) the author.
The poem about vile rottenflush, he clarifies, is too personal
and subjective to speak to anyone other than the person who wrote it.
He says, “the author has vented personal frustrations upon words,
instead of kicking stray dogs.”
Who am I to question the wisdom of someone
as accomplished as X. J. Kennedy?
I only know that I remember the phrase “vile rottenflush”
four decades after first hearing it. Also, I think the author of “vile rottenflush”
had witnessed a death of someone much loved, and anyone who has watched
the most cherished people in their lives die might understand the poem, after all.
I think this because the poem also mentions “corpseblood” and “ghastly stench.”
No one forgets the smell of a soul leaving the body.
And no one forgets what they see when life is flushed away.
Perhaps “rottenflush” was a novel way of avoiding the now
clichéd references to “putrefying flesh.”
Perhaps it is a way of reminding the readers
That our blood will cease to flow, pulse, and pump,
Only to be left to pool, drip, and stink.
The author of “vile rottenflush” might be accused of being too direct,
But not too personal. Which of us will not overwhelm
Post mortem viewers and handlers with our own
Ghastly stench, reducing them to cries or horror
As they see their fate clearly in our eyes?
So many people died that year that I developed
A permanent anxiety about companion mortality.
Guns, cancer, fire, and water all took people from me.
After an absence of a few months, a friend once
Called just to say, “You thought I was dead,
Didn’t you?” My curse amused him immensely.
Once, as my infant son lay resting peacefully, I went
Over to check his breathing. His older brother
Reassured, “It’s okay, Daddy, he’s not dead.”
And you apologise for keeping me awake with
Your fitful sleep, but every cough, sigh, snore, or
Fart only reminds me you are with me awhile longer.
Ever since the change from that time of life,
You have thrown the covers off your body as
If they were on fire, inviting damp coolness
On your skin. As the sweat evaporates and
You slip into a sounder sleep, I touch your
Cool and immobile body with trepidation
Nightly. I don’t want to wake you and disrupt
Your peace, so I lie awake, fretting and alone, to
Ponder this nightly act of solicitous love.
The most wretched and frail of all creatures is man, and withal the proudest.” ~Michel de Montaigne
Budding literary critics are advised that
If they do not see sex in the text,
They should look for death
As these are the most common themes
In literature, but aren’t they really only
One theme? It isn’t an accident that an
Orgasm is known as “la petite mort.”
Consoling a friend who was temporarily
Overwrought by an awkward social situation,
I counseled that it was “only sex” in the end.
Implacable, he reminded me that many species
Only live long enough to pass on their genetic
Coding for future generations, and he was right enough.
Somehow sex is our defense against death,
And simultaneously against the dreariness of life.
The little death is a reprieve from the trial of life,
And some become addicted to constant, temporary
Destruction. Everyone on the pull is merely
Engaged in a frantic meditation on annihilation.
Montaigne’s frank discussions of sexual attraction and
Relations were so riveting that his essays became
Popular erotic reading for ladies of the court,
But I bet they skipped to their favourite parts,
As Montaigne’s essays seemed to be a free dispensary
For the ongoing flow of words, images, and doubts
Flowing through his mind moment to moment.
I must admit, I don’t think I ever read a Montaigne essay
From beginning to end, either. It’s so much easier to just
Dip a toe in here and there, and face lust, barbarity, and
Despair all in one go. This was a man who knew we are
Only animals with the same genetic-driven compulsions for
Procreation and pleasure as any mammal, though we may hide
Behind our idea of refinement, which is only a bias for doing
Things in the way in which we’ve become accustomed.
In a previous century my grandfather died
Only weeks after my great uncle.
A few weeks later, my grandmother
Made a quick trip to the grocery store
And returned to find her house in flames.
Having lost her brother, husband, and home
In a matter of weeks, my uncle Skeet
(so known because as a child he was
No bigger than a mosquito or “skeeter”)
Tried to comfort his sister.
He was a country preacher with a small congregation
In the Piney Woods of East Texas, and he
Always turned to Jesus, of course, in times like these.
Attempting reassurance, he said, “Ain’t it wonderful, Sis?
This just shows that the Lord always watches over us.
No matter what, Jesus is always by your side.”
He meant, of course, that she was lucky not
To have been burned alive, but I sort of thought
The loss of everything she loved might have
Compensated for the joy of continued existence,
But people say I am just too negative.
In the current century, my grandmother
Eventually died just a few years short of
Becoming a centenarian, so I returned
To Livingston, Texas one last time.
As we gathered at my grandmother’s house
To mourn, one of my aunts complained bitterly,
“Well, we’re gonna have to fire our preacher,
‘Cause he keeps saying the BI-ble says to
Give our money to the poor. They can work for
Their own money like we did!”
Upon learning that one of her new in-laws
Was Mexican, she demanded, “Well, are ya
Legal? If you’re legal, it’s all right, but we
Don’t need any wetbacks in the family!”
I haven’t returned to Livingston, Texas.